VOICES: My industry is withering; immigrants can help us flourish again

Since the start of the pandemic, millions of homebound Americans sprouted gardens in their windowsills and backyards or spent their vacation funds on dreamy landscape projects. As president of the Ohio Green Industry Association (OGIA), I’ve seen our industry experience a historical boom these last two years. We should be rejoicing; customer demand has never been stronger. Instead, as people swarm our nurseries and clog the phone lines of our landscaping companies, business owners are stressed, scaling back or shutting down for good.

It seems crazy that anyone would forgo profits and retreat from our communities at this crucial moment. But we simply can’t find workers. The refrain isn’t unique to us, but we’ve been hit particularly hard. For the green industry, in-person labor is everything. We can’t Zoom into work; we need feet on the ground and hands on shovels. It doesn’t matter how much customer demand has risen; without workers who can mow grass, install patios or put plants in the ground, our businesses can’t operate.

At OGIA, we see a clear policy solution to this problem: welcome more workers from abroad. They’re already the backbone of our industry, but visa shortages and red tape have choked our labor pipeline. That’s why in late 2020, my organization joined forces with Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions (OBIS). This coalition of Ohio businesses, chambers of commerce, trade organizations and economic development groups see immigration reform as the key to resolving the labor crisis and restoring our economic vitality. Through OBIS, we’ve been able to speak directly to policy makers, urging them to streamline the visa application process, clear visa backlogs and allow temporary workers to remain in America - all moves that are fundamental to filling labor shortages.

The fact that membership to OBIS has tripled over the past year shows just how urgently we need these fixes. Business owners know that if they can’t find workers soon, they’ll have to close their doors. The decline is happening now. Landscaping companies across the state have stopped taking new orders or they’ve stretched project wait times by months. Meanwhile, American workers in our industry can’t get promoted to higher paying positions because they’re needed on the ground, installing projects, operating equipment, planting, harvesting and other jobs that immigrant workers are typically eager to fill when they first arrive. But the U.S. caps the number of temporary seasonal workers and uses a lottery system to assign them. This causes many garden centers, landscaping businesses and other green companies to close if they can’t access an adequate workforce.

As the CEO of a landscaping firm myself, I feel this anguish every year. I’m among the seven thousand employers who petitioned for 140,000 visas last year. Do you know how many visas are available? Only 33,000. Last year we didn’t get the workers we needed, so we had 14 people doing the work of 20. We ran ourselves ragged, worked longer hours, paid more in overtime, and declined projects that would have grown our bottom line. The losses were huge: if we could fully staff another two crews, that’d bring in another $1 million in sales, create more jobs for Americans and take our business to the next level.

Our country’s current labor crisis is unsustainable, and it has to change now. We need new policies but getting there requires a new attitude toward immigration. Immigrants pay taxes even though many can’t access public benefits. In Ohio alone, immigrants contributed $6 billion in taxes, including $2 billion to our state and local tax base, according to 2019 data from New American Economy. In my industry, H-2B visa workers come here legally and consistently prove themselves to be reliable and hardworking. And they don’t take American jobs, they help create American jobs. In fact, every H-2B migrant worker fuels up to 4.6 American jobs.

I’m asking Ohio leaders to help Ohio businesses. Welcoming policies will save our industry and so many others.

Molly Marie John is the president of the Ohio Green Industry Association and Vice President and CEO of M.J. Design Associates, Inc.

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